Posing questions to "Jeopardy!" champion-turned-host host Ken Jennings

The category is “Famous Jennings.” And the answer is: After being expelled from Jamaica in 1716, this privateer became the unofficial governor of the Pirate Republic of Nassau.

“Oh, I don’t know this,” said Ken Jennings. “Is one of my pirate forefathers named Jennings?”

[The correct response: “Who is Henry Jennings?”] 

Ken Jennings might not know his trivia quite like he used to. Is it the ravages of time? “Yeah. this is like watching me turn to dust and blow away in a chill wind!” he laughed.

That’s actually fine, because these days he gets handed all the answers backstage, right before he takes to the podium as the now-host of his favorite TV show ever, “Jeopardy!” He said, “It’s kind of the plot of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ I guess: a retiring leader of a franchise takes, you know, five little boys and girls to see which one of them really loves his chocolate the most. And I was the one that didn’t get sucked up the pipe or whatever.”

His Wonka? Longtime and legendary host Alex Trebek, who guided the show for decades, a show that turns 60 this year.

On the set of “Jeopardy!” with host Ken Jennings and correspondent Luke Burbank.

CBS News

As a young Mormon kid living in Korea, Jennings says watching Armed Forces Television was his favorite way to pass the time. And his favorite thing to watch? Game shows, of course. “I think it was actually the gameplay itself,” he said. “It was a version of the world with well-defined rules, where you could watch a few of them and understand the format. And as a kid, dealing with a confusing world, game shows are different. You know, questions get answered almost immediately. You know, for a right answer there’s a nice little ping; for a wrong answer there’s an immediate buzz. It’s not like life, which is messy. Game shows are neat and fun and easy.”

In college, instead of following his dream of writing, he opted to become what he calls “a bad computer programmer,” figuring it was the safe choice. He married his sweetheart, Mindy; started a family; and thought that’s how his life would go when, on a whim, he took the “Jeopardy!” contestant exam… 

“When I got the call a year later saying, ‘Hey, we’d like to have you on in three weeks,’ I freaked out,” said Jennings. I started watching the show very intensely, standing up behind my La-Z-Boy at home pretending it was a podium, mashing my thumb up and down on, like, a Fisher-Price plastic toy I’d stolen from our 18-month-old pretending it was a buzzer. My wife would keep score and tell me how I was doing. It was kind of a ‘Rocky’ training montage.”

To this day, Jennings says nothing compares to the nerves he felt under the lights and on-camera that first time he stepped on stage as a contestant. But then, something amazing happened: “In that first game, I found that, like, years of listening to the clipped rhythms of Alex Trebek really did help. Like, watching the show standing up with my fake buzzer helped. I kind of had the timing right away.”

In that first game, the score was close, and it all came down to Final Jeopardy!

Ken Jones in his first “Jeopardy!” appearance in 2004. He won – and continued to win and win and win. 


“I remember Alex accepting my response; it was about the Sydney Olympics: Who was Marion Jones?” Jennings said. “And I had just written down, Who is Jones? And Alex pauses for a second, like, ‘Ooh, is that enough? Is he just guessing a last name?’ And so, Alex looks to the judges, and he gets the high sign, and he says, ‘That’s correct.’

“And I realize, ‘I’m gonna be a ‘Jeopardy!’ champion for the rest of my life! And it was just an immediate rush of euphoria that, it’s hard to explain. As good as the birth of my kids (I can say that now that they’re teens and outta the house). It was just an amazing moment.”

That microsecond decision led to 74 straight victories, $2.5 million, game show immortality, and eventually (and improbably) the job of “Jeopardy!” host. 

Jennings will admit to one possible advantage he might have in the job: His empathy for players, because he’s been there himself. Still, Alex Trebek looms large. “If I was ever at sea, I would just think, ‘What would Alex do here?'” Jennings said. “And often, it was to do less. He had this amazing minimalist kind of light touch, where he never wanted the focus to be on himself, which is such an unusual, beautiful thing in show business. I kind of feel like even now. I want to be Alex Trebek when I grow up, because nobody’s ever gonna do that job as well as he did it.”

Which brings us back to our game, and a mistake we made earlier, which the judges caught: At the top of the piece we said they give Jennings “the answers” before the game. But of course, that’s incorrect – they give him the questions. So, where exactly did that come from? From “Jeopardy!” creator Merv Griffin’s wife, Julann, the story goes…

“Yeah, so Merv and Julann are on a plane coming back from vacation and he’s trying to come up with game show ideas,” said Jennings. “And she says, ‘Well, just do one of those, like, quiz shows like they used to have.’ And he said, ‘Honey, we can’t do those anymore. Those were all crooked. They were giving the players the answers.’ And she thinks about it and she says, ‘Well, that’s what you should do. You should just give ’em the answer, and they’ll come up with the question.’

“And he says, ‘What do you mean?’ And she says, ‘You know, 5,280 feet.’ And he says, ‘What is a mile?’ And that’s the birth of ‘Jeopardy!’ right there.”

“Jeopardy!” host Ken Jennings.

CBS News

The birth of a TV quiz show, but more importantly, says Ken Jennings, the birth of something that, in a small way, has helped hold us Americans together, at least for 30 minutes a night.

And there’s nothing trivial about that.

Jennings said, “The great and the odd thing about ‘Jeopardy!’ is, it’s kind of universally popular. Old people like ‘Jeopardy!,’ young people like ‘Jeopardy!,’ red states, blue states. It’s bizarrely universal. America still agrees that there’s, like, a half-hour every day where facts do matter, and we are allowed to adjudicate things as right or wrong actually based on science and history. And I do think that’s an important bulwark.”

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Story produced by Anthony Laudato. Editor: Steven Tyler. 

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